The setting is India's Battlefield of Kuruksetra, five thousand years ago. The devastating fratricidal war of succession is nearly over, and during a break in the fighting the members of both sides have gathered around an elderly warrior who lies grievously wounded. Who is he, and how is he able to go on living despite the many arrows that pierce his body?
He is the formidable Bhismadeva, the most powerful warrior of his day and a great devotee of Lord Krsna. We find his history recounted in the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Mahabharata, two great epics of India's Vedic civilization.
Bhisma was the only son of the virtuous King Santanu. Santanu loved Bhisma dearly and gave him the best training, sending him to the sage Vasistha to learn spiritual science and to Parasurama, an incarnation of God, to learn military science. Bhisma matured into a greatly powerful and pious warrior.
A dutiful son, Bhisma tried to please his father in all respects. Once, King Santanu fell in love with a certain fisherman's daughter of striking beauty. The king wanted to marry the girl, but her father wouldn't allow it unless his daughter's future son could ascend the throne. Santanu couldn't agree, since Bhisma was his first-born. To resolve the impasse, Bhisma promised never to accept the throne. But the fisherman still refused, thinking that Bhisma might marry and have a son who could become king. At that point Bhisma vowed never to marry. Everyone was awe-struck, since it was unheard-of for a member of the warrior caste to remain celibate. The fisherman then gave King Santanu the hand of his daughter, and the king was so pleased with Bhisma that he gave him the boon of being able to die at a time of his own choosing. Thus we see that despite hundreds of wounds, Bhisma remains alive.
The figures gathered around Bhismadeva are Lord Krsna and the five Pandavas, headed by Yudhisthira. The Pandavas are the great-grandchildren of King Santanu and Satyavati, the fisherman's daughter.
Because the father of the Pandavas, King Pandu, had died at an early age, they were raised by Bhisma in the house of their paternal uncle, Dhrtarastra. Dhrtarastra had one hundred sons, headed by Duryodhana. Duryodhana, his ninety-nine brothers, and the Pandavas grew up together in Dhrtarastra's palace, but since the Pandavas were more proficient in all the games and sporting events, and since it was Yudhisthira, the eldest Pandava, who was in line to ascend the throne, Duryodhana became envious of Yudhisthira and his brothers. As time passed, this envy grew into a burning hatred, and Duryodhana constantly schemed how to wrest the kingdom from Yudhisthira.
As the Pandavas and Lord Krsna kneel beside Bhisma, he tearfully recalls all the atrocities perpetrated against them by the unscrupulous Duryodhana. Once, Duryodhana built a house of shellac and invited the Pandavas to come and live in it with their mother, Queen Kunti. Only a cryptic warning from Vidura, Dhrtarastra's wise and saintly brother, enabled the Pandavas to escape unharmed when one of Duryodhana's henchmen set the house ablaze.
Undaunted, Duryodhana next tried to cheat the Pandavas in a rigged gambling match. On the advice of the evil Sakuni, an expert swindler, Duryodhana invited the Pandavas to come to the palace and enjoy "a friendly gambling match." In this ill-fated match, Yudhisthira lost all his wealth and position. Even then Duryodhana and Sakuni were unsatisfied, and they suggested that Yudhisthira bet his wife, Draupadi. Bound by the strict codes of his warrior caste, Yudhisthira reluctantly agreed, and Draupadi too was lost. Duryodhana's vicious cohorts then tried to disrobe her in full view of the august assembly. But she prayed fervently to Lord Krsna to save her, and He supplied her an unlimited amount of cloth. She couldn't be disrobed! Still, the heinous attempt by Duryodhana and his men created between the two parties an intense hatred that eventually led to the Battle of Kuruksetra.
It is in the aftermath of this battle that we find Bhismadeva, surrounded by the Pandavas and Lord Krsna. Bhisma was such a fierce and skillful fighter that he was virtually invincible; only by a trick was he mortally wounded. Now, in recognition of his exalted position and his profound devotion to Lord Krsna, many great saints and sages have also gathered to hear his last words.
While instructing and consoling Yudhisthira, Bhisma sees that the astrologically auspicious moment for his death is fast approaching. He then fixes his mind and senses on the Lord, withdrawing them from anything else. In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna says that whatever one thinks of at the time of death will determine one's next life. "And if one thinks of Me," the Lord says, "he will attain to My eternal, spiritual kingdom." Bhismadeva knows all this, and desiring to go back to Godhead, he concentrates his full attention on the beautiful form of Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is mercifully kneeling beside him.
Bhisma's deep meditation on Krsna raises his consciousness to a transcendental state, and he ceases to feel any pain from his wounds. Then Bhisma offers these sublime prayers to the Lord:
"Let me now invest my thinking, feeling, and willing solely in the all-powerful Lord Sri Krsna. He is always self-satisfied, but sometimes He enjoys transcendental pleasure by descending to the material world. Sri Krsna, the intimate friend of Arjuna, has appeared on earth in His transcendental bluish form, which is attractive to everyone in the three worlds. May that Krsna, with His glittering yellow dress and lotuslike face, be the sole object of my attraction. On the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, Krsna's armor shone brightly, His flowing hair turned ashen from the dust upraised by the horses' hoofs, and beads of perspiration moistened His face. He enjoyed it when my sharp arrows pierced His skin. Let my mind be absorbed in these thoughts of Sri Krsna."
Krsna promised to abstain from direct combat in the battle, so He took the role of Arjuna's charioteer. But when Bhisma threatened Arjuna's life, Krsna, to protect His devotee, broke His promise. Krsna got off the chariot and rushed toward Bhisma. It was then that Bhisma shot his arrows at the Lord. Unaffected by Bhisma's attack, Krsna was apparently about to slay him when the day's fighting ended.
We may be puzzled to learn that a great devotee of Krsna attacked Him in battle and wounded Him and that the Lord enjoyed this! The mystery is cleared up when we understand that Krsna, like us, sometimes wants to fight, and that He likes to engage in mock-fighting with His devotees. Bhisma was both a great warrior and a great servant of the Lord, and he pleased Krsna by fighting with Him on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra. The Lord's body, being pure spirit and thus indestructible, was of course not really wounded in the fight.
After completing his prayers to the Lord, Bhisma falls silent, stops breathing, and passes away. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains this event as follows: "The stage attained by Bhismadeva while quitting his material body is called nirvikalpa-samadhi because he merged his self totally in thoughts of the Lord by remembering His different activities, by chanting the glories of the Lord, and by seeing the Lord personally present before him. Thus all his activities became concentrated upon the Lord, without deviation. This is the highest stage of perfection, and it is possible for everyone to attain this stage by practicing devotional service."
Bhismadeva is remembered in the Vedic literature for his unparalleled heroism, his great vow of celibacy, and his deep devotion to Lord Krsna. His glorious death confirms Krsna's statements in Bhagavad-gita that "the sober person is not bewildered by the change of body known as death" and "the self-realized soul is not disturbed even in the greatest difficulty." By fixing our minds on Krsna and serving Him during our lifetime, we can, like Bhisma, cross over the ocean of material tribulations and enter the spiritual world at death.